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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Assisi, the Jewel of Umbria

I generally prefer writing about a place we've been to as soon as possible after we get back. Otherwise, I start to forget little details that I might have wanted to include in my blog post. However, it is also just as satisfying to write about a place months after we've been there (or in this case, a full year) because I get to revisit the pictures and marvel at just how beautiful it was. 

This is definitely the case for Assisi. While I remember liking it, after seeing the pictures again today, I was in awe at just how beautiful it was. While Turin was the first city outside of Rome we visited more than a year ago, Assisi was the first town. 

We went for a weekend last December after we finally had our car and it really was the perfect weekend getaway. I remember how I spent the entire drive snapping pictures of the scenery (Umbria is just as beautiful as the more popular Tuscany). I don't think I was ever so enthusiastic about a drive since then, obviously a product of it being the first drive outside of Rome. 

The sheep just lounging around...
Assisi is a small, charming, medieval town in the region of Umbria. It is the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francesco d'Assisi is not only the town's main sight, but also part of the UNESCO listing along with the historic center. Most of the main sights in Assisi are churches, like the Basilica of Santa Chiara with the tomb of St. Clare and Santo Stefano, one of the oldest churches in the region. 

Our first look of Assisi.
We arrived when the sun was setting and this was the splendid view from the Basilica of St. Francis. #nofilterneeded.

But, really, you don't come to Assisi to stuff your days with things to do. 

Assisi is more for the slow travel. You walk around the town, enjoy the small alleys and streets, and maybe wander into a church or walk around a piazza. Really, the only thing we saw that weekend was the Basilica of St. Francesco (and it pains me to say that we didn't even see the most important part, the crypt where he is buried, because we just didn't see the lower basilica), the Basilica of Santa Chiara, and the medieval castle, Rocca Maggiore. 

Another picture of that splendid sunset, one of my favorite. 
The nativity scene, or presepe, outside of the Basilica. 
The streets of Assisi dressed up for the holidays. 
A lonely street at night. The town was almost empty at this time of the year. 
The view the next morning driving up to Rocca Maggiore. 
From the castle....
Another one from the castle with the Basilica in the background.
How gorgeous is this?!?

It was more than enough to land Assisi in my favorite towns of Italy list. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About a Papal Mass at the Vatican.

Special Announcement: As you know if you follow me on Facebook (hint, hint, you should), I'm finally making the leap to a self-hosted blog with my very own domain name (this is the most exciting part for me!!!). Within the next weeks, at the latest before the new year, I'll be exporting everything over to my new site, mynapoleoncomplex.com. You can check it out now and see the landing page :). For now, it's business as usual around here. 

Since we can now say the Christmas season is fully upon us (or, if you're like Jaime, Christmas season will start on Monday the 8th until January 6th, but he's no fun), I figured its the perfect time to do an informative post on one of the most special, one-of-a-kind things you can experience in Rome: a Papal Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. 

We have been to three papal masses while we've been in Rome so we are by no means experts, but hopefully I'll be able to enlighten you with some of the things we've learned along the way. 

St. Peter's Square on the night of the Easter Vigil, prepared for Easter Sunday Mass the next day.

Getting Tickets

First things first: Tickets to a Papal Mass are always free. 

I've personally never seen anybody trying to sell their tickets but I'm sure someone, somewhere has tried. 

There are many masses presided by the Pope throughout the year, some of the biggest are:
  • January 6th - Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
  • Easter Weekend Saturday - Easter Vigil
  • Easter Sunday - Easter Mass (usually held in St. Peter's Square)
  • June 29th - Solemnity of St. Peter & St. Paul
  • December 24th - Solemnity of the Birth of Christ
  • December 31st - Solemnity of the Feast of the Mother of God
For a complete list it is always best to check the Vatican Calendar which, unlike most other websites in Italy, is actually decent and regularly updated. 

If you're lucky enough to be in Rome at the time of a papal mass, there are many ways to get tickets. If you're part of a special group (say embassy or other diplomatic employees), many times it is possible to get tickets through them. If you are planning a group trip with a parish, the Vatican requests you to fill out the regular ticket request form, and attach a letter from your parish. 

For the rest of us commoners, the best way to reserve tickets in advance is to contact the Vatican directly (ticket requests may only be done by fax with this form) at: 

Prefecture of the Papal Household 

00120 Vatican City State 

Fax: +39 06 6988 5863 

The earlier you request it and the smaller the amount of tickets needed, the greater the chances of your ticket request being accepted. For the two big masses, Christmas and Easter, it is recommended to request tickets no later than two months before. In fact, this year we wanted to attend the Christmas Eve mass since we will be staying in Rome for the holidays, and our ticket request was denied (we requested them sometime in November).

If you were unable to reserve tickets in advance, you might still be able to go to the mass! On the day of the mass you can ask the Swiss Guard at the "Bronze Gates" and if there are tickets available, they will give them to you.

As a last last resort, if your heart is still set on attending the mass, you can go asking people in the line to get into the basilica for any extra tickets. Tip: I've usually seen that the people with extra tickets tend to be in the bigger groups and are usually the priests or nuns in charge. When we went to the Easter Vigil, there was this man behind in us in line who was here all the way from Australia without a ticket and hoping to still be able to enter the basilica. I didn't have the heart to tell him that the chances of being allowed to enter without a ticket were very slim, but just as we were about to get to the entrance, a ticket literally just flew by and landed at this guy's feet. I swear this happened. The man was even gracious enough to ask around us to see if anybody's ticket had flown away but nobody claimed the ticket so he was able to go in! If this isn't a prime example of the Lord working in mysterious ways, I don't know what is.

What to Wear

Once you have your ticket situation all straightened out and you know you're going to a Papal Mass, the next question you ask yourself is, "What do I wear?"

A kinda blurry picture of how we went to Easter Vigil Mass. Jaime still wearing his best suit (but today it was doubling as a coat)
For the first mass we went to, New Years Eve last year, this was literally the bane of my existence throughout the month of December. See, the only guideline from the Vatican is that your shoulders and knees must be covered (this is a rule that is followed throughout the year in St. Peter's). Other than that, there is no explanation on whether to wear a dress or pants or to go casual or to go in dark colors or to go at your most elegant. 

I'm here to, once and for all, clear up any vagueness about this situation. 

The first time we went to mass, Jaime dressed up in his best suit, with his best shoes, best tie, best winter jacket. I wore a pencil skirt (slightly above the knee), with black tights, a turtleneck, and my 4 inch heel boots. To Jaime, I was underdressed and breaking church law with my above the knee skirt. But I was allowed in, so I have a theory that black tights (not sheer) are enough fulfill the covered knee rule. It is still up for debate whether skin colored tights also fulfill this rule. 

Turns out, that I felt at least, that Jaime and I were overdressed. Most people around us were wearing jeans, sneakers, and even the occasional sweatshirt. I kid you not. Now, is it a little disrespectful to go to church (much less the church of all churches) in sneakers and a sweatshirt? Most definitely. Do you need to go in that suit you only wear to funerals and weddings? Absolutely not. 

When to Get There

As the Vatican likes to remind you, having a golden ticket in your hand does not guarantee entry into the Basilica. Nor does it mean you can get there five minutes before the mass starts like you do every Sunday at your local church. 

In general, you should plan to be there at least an hour in advance (definitely two if its Christmas or Easter). When you arrive in St. Peter's Square, it will likely be a little chaotic. If you ask a police officer, or a carabinieri, where to go, most likely they will have no idea, because, hey you're still in Rome. 

For the New Years Eve mass, they shut down the entire square a few hours before the mass and people, including us, started lining up at every gate into the square. No one had any idea what was going on or if we were even making the right line. When they finally opened the square, I swear it was like the moment you step into the Hunger Games and all the contestants run to the cornucopia to get supplies. First, the line that we had made for the past hour went to hell and everybody just started pushing to get through the barriers. Once we were past the barriers, then everybody just sprinted to the doors of the basilica. 

Luckily, maybe the Vatican saw the error of their ways, or maybe thats a special procedure for the New Years Mass, because the other two times we attended, the square was open and there was a much more orderly line to get into the basilica. Beware though that this is Italy and there will always be people trying to skip the line. Don't let them!

Once You're Inside

The church will be open about an hour before the mass is scheduled to start. There will be some guidance by the ushers but you will have a little freedom to choose where to sit. The prime seats right at the very very front are usually more like mini thrones reserved for the VIPs. How do you know if you're VIP? Well, VIPs are probably invited personally by the Pope, they probably did not just spend the past two hours standing outside in the cold (or the heat!) to get inside, and they probably have their car parked within Vatican City itself with a chauffeur waiting to drive them home.

Hey VIP! Jk, this was after the mass, when they let you get closer to the altar.
Other than that, seats are a free-for-all. They fill up the center of the basilica first, with the inside aisle seats being prime real estate (if you want one of those you better be there making that line early). Then they fill up the sides. By sides I mean the seats directly to the right and left of the altar. I find that those are usually the better seats for closer views without the necessity of being the very first in line.

Usually, they'll be doing the rosary while they wait for the start of the mass. If you're not Catholic, or if you don't feel like praying the rosary, you can of course take pictures. In fact, you can take pictures throughout the mass. I mean, you can bring your huge Canon with your five lenses and just go to town. The only thing you can't do is set up your tripod in the middle of church. But you can even stand up and walk around (or even stand up on the chairs to get a better view of the Pope as he walks by).

These amazing pictures were taken with a long lens with good zoom. We were, unfortunately, not really that close to the Pope. 
Basically, the point I'm trying to make is that just because its a mass with the Pope in St. Peter's doesn't mean that it's not also a tourist attraction. The holiest of masses turns out to be, in many ways, the least respected. You can make up your own mind about what you think of this, but me? Well, I don't think people should be standing on chairs in St. Peter's just to try to catch a glimpse of the Pope's hat, but there you go.

Also keep in mind that a papal mass is not your regular Sunday church mass that lasts for 40-60 minutes and you're home. The Easter Vigil lasted for about four hours and even the mass for St. Peter and St. Paul lasted about two hours.

The altar for the Easter Vigil mass.
There you have it, your complete guide to a Papal Mass at the Vatican. Could you have gone to the Vatican website for information? Sure, but it definitely wouldn't have been as candid and full of colorful information as mine is. Even still, here you may find useful and official information on papal masses directly from the source. 

And if there's no mass when you plan your trip to Rome but you still want to catch a glimpse of the Pope, you can always attend the Angelus every (or most) Sunday at noon or the General Audience at 10:30 am almost every Wendesday (except when the Pope is on summer vaca). I wrote more about those in this post.

Laugh Anyway

We Took the Road Less Traveled

Monday, December 1, 2014

Thanksgiving in Rome

Thanksgiving came and went in a huge blur, so now I can give my full attention to my blog once again (until Christmas, that is!). This was our second Thanksgiving in Rome, but last year it was a much more intimate affair for us. We had just moved in to our apartment about two weeks before, so I really only had time to get a turkey breast for Jaime and I.

Earlier this year, one of Jaime's Italian coworkers asked us if we did a full turkey on Thanksgiving like they see on tv. That's how Jaime and I decided that we had to do a full traditional Thanksgiving dinner for our Italian friends.

A lot of my fellow expats in Italy say that celebrating Thanksgiving can be a bit stressful, considering that some of the ingredients we need to make the most traditional dishes can be hard (or impossible) to find. Honestly, this hasn't been my experience at all. Sure, if you want to buy box cornbread stuffing, gravy in a jar, and store-bought pumpkin pie, you will be sadly disappointed. But if you make everything yourself, as I like to do on Thanksgiving, most of the ingredients are easily available in any supermarket.

One of my favorite pictures. I'm always very proud of my cheese platter skills. 

The most difficult thing to get, I'd say, is a full turkey. But, if you go to a butcher, and explain what you want and what it's for (most Italians know what La Festa del Ringraziamento is) you'll be able to get it. Just don't wait until the last minute of course. They might look at you a little weird, but you'll get your turkey. As for other shortcut ingredients, Castroni is a great resource we have in Rome, where you can usually find canned pumpkin and other American pie fillings year round. But worst case scenario, there are pumpkins in big supermarkets that you can buy to make your pie from scratch.

Another tip that has made my life infinitely easier for Thanksgiving and other American dishes is to give it a little Italian flair using Giada Laurentiis' recipes. Her recipes taste great and use a bunch of ingredients that are extremely easy to find in Italy (bonus is that all those Italian freshly-grated cheeses she uses are cheaper here than in the U.S.).

Here are the links to the recipes I used this year for Thanksgiving dishes:

  • Alton Brown's Good Eats Roast Turkey - It was my first year making the turkey using this recipe but nearly 5000 5 star reviews on the Food Network can't be wrong. I will say it was a little scary as to how quickly the turkey reached the desired 161ºF, so I chickened out and left it in the oven for a little while longer. It still came out moist and delicious. 
  • Giada's Ciabatta Stuffing with Chestnuts & Pancetta - See what I mean about easy to find Italian ingredients. This was also a big hit with our guests. 
  • Gilda's Baked Mashed Potatoes - This has become my go-to mashed potatoes recipe. I made it last year for Thanksgiving and I've made it throughout the year a couple of times for big groups. It's the best!
  • Paula Deen's Green Bean Casserole - Can't do traditional dishes without Paula. This was the dish I made less of, thinking that it would be the least-liked by our guests, yet it was the one they raved most about! Cream of Mushroom soup can be made from scratch, as well as the fried onions, if you can't find the canned American versions. 
  • Southern Creamed Corn - This recipe didn't thrill me, but it was the first time I've ever made creamed corn, so maybe I just need a little practice. 
  • Gravy - I made the gravy ahead of time using this recipe I found on Pinterest and I gotta say, I loved it!
  • Paula Deen's Pumpkin Pie - One of our friends was much more familiar with American dishes (because he's lived in the States) and when he saw the Pumpkin Pie he exclaimed, "This is definitely a real American Thanksgiving!" (as if the rest of the dishes didn't clue him in haha). I made two pumpkin pies this year, one for our home and one for Jaime's office and both groups are asking me for the recipes, so pumpkin pie is a big hit for Italians. 
Another thing to be wary of is turkey size for your small Italian ovens. I brought my turkey roasting pan from the States but it is way too big for my oven, so I had improvise with other pans. Lucky for me, a 12 pound turkey was enough for our guests and fit perfectly in our oven. 
My turkey carving skills are also pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. It was also my first time!
#ThanksgivingFail story: I let Jaime carve the turkey the first time I made a turkey two years ago and he butchered it beyond recognition. 
While it is true that Italians are very careful about the foods they eat and are obsessed with things like "lightness (of the meal)" and "digestibility", they are very open to having American dishes, which are definitely not known for any of those traits. So, all in all, I'd say the most stressful thing about an American Thanksgiving in Italy (apart from the preparation and planning) was the worry that the food would be too heavy. Instead, my fears were completely unfounded, because this group of Italians, at least,  almost left me with no leftovers (that's one Thanksgiving tradition that I definitely do not care for)!

This photo would never have made the cut to get on the blog if it wasn't for the fact that it's the ONLY picture we have together of the night. We didn't even take a group picture!
Bonus: Italians give great hosting gifts! What you see above is a 5kg business size Nutella jar. That's 11.02 lbs of Nutella, people!!

Monday, November 24, 2014

I've been nominated for a Liebster Award!

It's been so crazy in my head for the past week that I've simply not had the time to write a blogpost so my amazing streak of two posts a week has slowed down :(. This Thursday is Thanksgiving, as I'm sure we are all aware, and I'm making lists of everything I might possibly need to make it all perfect. Just because Italy doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving doesn't mean we're not planning on going all out, so my last few nights have been spent just pouring over all the information out there on turkeys, casseroles, pumpkin pies, etc. But we'll talk more about that on Friday, when I do my first full Thanksgiving in Rome post!

Because of how busy I am, it's the perfect opportunity to talk about my Liebster award nomination by the wonderful Stacey over at One Trip at a Time! I received her message about her nomination last week while I was in Vienna and I loved the idea of the award. I tried to look up the origins, but its basically been lost among the whole chain linking of blogs.

As Stacey explained so eloquently, the Liebster award isn't the type of award that has judges or a criteria to receive it. It's simply a way for bloggers to share some of their favorite small, newbie blogs and spread the internet love! I had never heard of it before so I tried to look up the origins, but its basically been lost among the whole chain linking of blogs. Regardless, along the way I found three or four blogs I liked enough to follow on BlogLovin' so the Liebster has served its purpose!

Since I'm not really one to do extremely personal posts, this is a great way for me to share some things about myself with you guys, the readers. If you're more into the travel pictures, tips, and general wanderlust (as I am) just bear with me this one post :).

1. What three things do you always pack on a trip?

My number one most important thing that I always pack for any trip is my hair iron (or sometimes my blow dryer). Unless its primarily a beach trip, I try to always do my hair on a trip otherwise I'll end up hating any pictures I take. And as Jaime always says, I'm obsessed with my hair (it is true, though). 

Other than that, I always take my camera, no matter how small and insignificant the trip is. Lately, I've also been taking the iPad everywhere I go, with some ebooks saved for reading.

2. What is the best meal you've ever had and where did you have it? 

This is one of those hard questions that I actually have more than one answer to...The first place that came to my mind was Morimoto's in Honolulu, where we had an amazing dinner. I'll never forget the bass I had that had been completely deboned but still kept its shape (not sure if I'm explaining it correctly, but if you go to TripAdvisor someone is bound to have posted a picture of it). 

But another place that I can't help but mention is Pupatella in Arlington, VA. It's a Neapolitan pizzeria, and yes I know I live in Italy and can have Neapolitan pizza whenever I want....but...there's something about this place that really makes it hard for me to forget it. Maybe it's because it was the first true Neapolitan pizza I ever had, but whatever it is, if you're in D.C., make the trip to Pupatella. I haven't been to every pizzeria in the States, but I guarantee its one of the best in the country.

3. Where are you planning to go on your next trip? 

Well, we just got back from Vienna last week and the next trip that's already planned is in December to Switzerland and some of the towns in Northern Italy. However, between now and then, I'm sure we'll probably sneak a weekend getaway somewhere close by!

4. What's your favorite blogpost that you've written? Share the link!

One of my favorite posts is a recent one, my post on Italy's most underrated city: Turin. I absolutely loved this city and it was very fun to be able to relive the entire trip in one post. There's something to be said about writing posts on old trips because it's almost like going there all over again as you write.

5. What are your hobbies? 

If I'm not doing the whole housewife gig, you can find me reading, watching TV shows online (right now I'm slowly making my way through Full House), or blogging of course!

Thanks again to Stacey for the nomination and now I nominate the following three blogs that I love to read and inspire my wanderlust (same questions, girls!):

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Italian Riviera, Part Two: Portovenere & Portofino

I'll be completely honest with you: I really don't feel like writing this post. It's been a pretty exhausting week so far. We spent the weekend in the beautiful city of Vienna (if you follow me on Instagram you'd know this....hint hint), only getting back on Monday night. Yesterday, I spent the day cleaning before we picked up Arya from the doggy hotel and today I'm just pooped. The rest of this week and next I'll be deep in Thanksgiving preparations for next Thursday. While I'm super excited for the actual holiday, I always stress out over making sure I have the perfect menu and all the ingredients and tools I need to make it happen.

Today's post is going to be a short one continuing on with our week in the Italian Riviera. Jaime was working most days, but we did take advantage of the late afternoons and the weekend to explore some of the towns we hadn't yet seen in the province of Liguria.

Portovenere is one of those towns, also listed as a UNESCO site with Cinque Terre. We dropped by one night before dinner just for a quick stroll and some pictures. I can't tell you much about it, since we didn't actually go into any of the shops or restaurants, but I can tell you it makes for great sunset pictures :). Overall, I think it gave off a vibe similar to Lerici, in that it is charming yet doesn't get the attention its famous five neighbors receive.

Portofino was absolutely gorgeous and we did get to spend a little more time there, but Jaime described it perfectly while we were driving into it: "The playground of the filthy rich" Obviously nothing against rich people and by all means if you're visiting for vacation and want to splurge a little, go for it. But bottom line is that it's expensive. We were planning on having dinner there, but quickly realized that every restaurant was going to set us back at least 200€. Personally, I just didn't think it was worth it when we were eating the same food in Lerici for about 50€. Other than that, it does make for a nice walk with its stunning views.

There was a cute flower event going on when we got there! 

End of September and these babies still looked like this! Only in Italy! 

The view as you get to and leave Portofino...Or the playground, as Jaime likes to call it. 

This wasn't Portofino per se, but you do have to drive through this town to get to Portofino. I loved the view from this pier. 
These two towns on the Italian Riviera are definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. On my next post I'll continue on the Liguria lovin' with our day trip to Genoa!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Italian Riviera: Lerici

Back in September, Jaime had to go for work to a little beach town in the Italian Riviera called Lerici. In fact, I mentioned it when I wrote my post on Cinque Terre

Here's what I knew about Lerici: nothing. On the map I saw it was close to Portovenere, a much more well-known seaside town, and Cinque Terre. With my love for Cinque Terre, that was more than enough to convince me to tag along. 

But, as it tends to happen with Italian towns, the less well-known they are, the more they tend to surprise you and charm the pants off you. Lerici was absolutely no exception. It is right in the middle of the famed Golfo dei Poeti (Gulf of Poets), offers splendid beach views from wherever you are, and amazing seafood. 

Of course I knew it was a beach town, but I did not for a minute think we'd be lucky to have a beachfront hotel. But we did! To be fair though, we were there at the end of the season and pretty much every hotel in Lerici is beachfront. We stayed at the Hotel Florida, a charming 3 star hotel that really deserves at least 4 stars. Most rooms had their own balcony with splendid views of the beach, a breakfast buffet was included, and best of all, it's dog-friendly!

While Jaime was working, Arya and I explored Lerici and the neighboring town of San Terenzo (when I say neighboring, I mean the boardwalk literally unites these two little towns so its less than a kilometer walk). We walked to the main attraction of the area, the Castello di Lerici, and climbed up to its terrace to enjoy the stunning panorama. We didn't go inside the castle because its supposed to have some small dinosaur exhibit for kids. 

The view from the castle terrace.
The colorful main piazza. 
Can we take a moment to appreciate the cute old man enjoying the beach with his walking stick? I wanna be like him! 
This was the neighboring town of San Terenzo, with its beach and castle. 
The star of the show stealing the spotlight!
The Blue Mile in the Gulf of Poets. 
I also got to enjoy the beach, which wasn't as great as Sardinia's beaches, but still way better than anything in Florida so I definitely cannot complain. The beach directly in front of our hotel was Venere Azzura, a Blue Flag beach. If you don't know about the Blue Flag program, it is basically a certification that a beach receives if it meets the standards set by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) for cleanliness, safety, water quality, etc. Countries become members on a voluntary basis, so you won't find any Blue Flag beaches in the U.S., for example, but in Italy you will find thousands. Basically, if you want a guarantee that a beach in Italy is any good, just go to a Blue Flag beach. 

That's our hotel from the beach!

This little guy was enjoying that beautiful beach.
At night, Jaime and I would go out to eat at the restaurants in Lerici, which offered some amazing seafood at better prices than you would find in the neighboring villages of Cinque Terre. Most of the restaurants offered pretty much the same things, with the traditional Ligurian pesto or salted anchovies, pasta with seafood, and a number of different fish options. Our favorite restaurant was by far Il Frantoio, but we also enjoyed Ristorante del Molo and Ristorante le Vele. We even took a seafood break one night and ate at La Piccola Oasi, a very charming restaurant that specialized in meat. The chef was a very cool guy that's cooked for some very famous rock bands, including the Rolling Stones! He has pictures and autographs displayed all over the restaurant. 

After I spent all my time taking pictures, Jaime just blew me away with ONE picture!
Overall, Lerici was a very nice break from the city, especially when you come so late in the season like the end of September, when everything was very quiet and relaxing. It's also a good base from which to explore Portovenere and Cinque Terre, without paying the Cinque Terre prices. Don't be like us and stay at La Spezia, when you can stay at this beautiful little paradise instead!